After the underperforming seafaring adventure In the Heart of the Sea and the offbeat Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week, director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer are back in their usual populist form with hot-footed thriller Inferno. Following up their adaptations of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, the team offers a third adaptation of one of Dan Brown’s treasure hunts, featuring Tom Hanks as art historian and cryptologist Robert Langdon. Once more, Langdon is off on a dash around Europe with a younger woman (Felicity Jones) by his side, this time using clues from Dante’s epic poem and various works of art to track down a deadly virus.
Although some of the film’s many twists are not that surprising, they’re satisfyingly delivered, and with a strong supporting cast that also includes Sidse Babett Knudsen (HBO’s Westworld), Ben Foster (Hell or High Water), Irrfan Khan (Jurassic World) and Omar Sy (The Intouchables), plus striking dream imagery, this adds up to arguably the best in the franchise so far. Admittedly, that’s not a high bar to jump, but Inferno should reserve a place in the paradise of year-end high earners.
A pacy opening prologue crosscuts between a cheaply shot TED Talk-style lecture from billionaire biologist Bertrand Zobrist (Foster) decrying the effects of overpopulation and scenes of him being pursued through the streets of Florence, Italy, during dusk or dawn. (The exact time is not important; the effect of magic-hour lighting on warm, old stonework and cobbled streets as filmed by DP Salvatore Totino, is.) Zobrist throws himself out of a bell tower rather than be apprehended by Brouchard (Sy), an agent of unspecified agency.
Not even slightly coincidentally, it so happens that Harvard professor Robert Langdon is also in Florence, although he has no idea how he got there. He wakes up with a gash in his scalp in a hospital, attended to by comely English-accented physician Sienna Brooks (Jones). Sienna’s explanation of how he arrived at the hospital days ago and how he has temporary amnesia due to his head trauma is interrupted when Vayentha (Ana Ularu), a female carabinieri, inexplicably arrives at the hospital, shooting an orderly and firing in Langdon’s general direction.
Sienna helps him escape and as they head for her apartment, Langdon is beset by disturbing visions of people with twisted, tortured bodies, a mysterious woman wearing a face-concealing veil and a beefy man. Also, there’s thousands of gallons of blood exploding out of shattered windows in a special effect that may beat, if only in volumetric terms, the bloody elevator shot in The Shining.
Of course, all will eventually be revealed. To paraphrase Dante, quoted many times in case any slower readers have failed to grasp the origin of the quote, all Langdon needs to do is seek so that he may find. Before long, he and Sienna are taking all manner of planes, trains and automobiles as they work out that Zobrist was a kind of extreme green zealot who planned to release a plague virus within 24 hours that would kill off most of the world’s population, thereby easing the strain humanity puts on the earth’s resources. Zobrist left clues for a mysterious third party to find it, which would lead to the location of the plague-delivery vehicle, hidden in a reproduction of Botticelli’s painting Map of Hell, which leads to Vasari’s painting The Battle of Marciano in the Palazzo Vecchio, which leads to a clue at the Duomo, which leads to trips to Venice and Istanbul. And so on.
Among all this seeking and finding, the story introduces rogue elements in the shape of the Consortium, a shadowy super-powerful private security firm run by Harry Sims (Khan), and the World Health Organization’s own quasi-SWAT team, overseen by Elizabeth Sinskey (Knudsen, delicious as always), who just happens to be an old flame of Langdon’s. Taking a lead from the flip-flop twists of Brown’s original book, the script slow-drips reversals and reveals, planting seeds for our suspicions that any character could be a sell-out, a Zobrist sympathizer or a spy. Ultimately, once all the chips land, the take-home message seems to be don’t trust anyone under 35, especially kids who are good with newfangled gizmos and gadgets more complicated than Langdon’s beloved Mickey Mouse wristwatch.
Critics in various media may love to sneer at the whole Dan Brown phenomenon, from the cliché-riddled prose of the books to the films’ Bourne-style action-movie tourism for oldies. It’s basically a compressed burger stack of conspiracy theories, guide-book high culture and hashed-up history. But when you throw in the likable everyman Hanks as the acting meat, a pretty co-star cheese slice, and that musical special sauce that Hans Zimmer specializes in, it’s not hard to see why viewers eat this stuff up. It’s moderately evolved movie fast food, more culturally nutritious than many other action films, but still highly calorific and packed with tasty trans fats — the cinematic equivalent of Five Guys’ burgers, as opposed to ones from McDonald’s.
Full disclosure: I have not read Brown’s original book all the way through, but like any other 21st century journalist I skimmed it on an e-reader and studied its Wikipedia page. (“This article’s plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed,” says the editorial team’s note on the entry, but I’m not complaining.) Based on that thorough amount of research, it looks like there’s a substantial divergence between Brown’s tale and the yarn spun here by screenwriter David Koepp (he collaborated with Da Vinci Code’s adapter Akiva Goldsman on Angels & Demons). Where book readers might expect the bad guys by the end to turn out to be characters A, B, and C, instead it transpires they’re actually X, Y and sort of Z. Plus, the book’s ending is weirdly bleak, suggesting that Brown’s contempt for humanity is not unlike Zobrist’s.
That discrepancy between book and film is itself interesting. Perhaps it’s a sign that the filmmakers aren’t worried if the book readers are upset by the divergence, or don’t see them as a vocal enough constituency to need appeasing. After all, it’s not like this is Dickens or Cervantes or anything, or even one of the Game of Thrones books. In fact, perhaps the changes are intended to be a playful trick on book readers, a rug whisked out from under their feet to create fresh suspense. In any case, the narrative algebra is reasonably elegantly executed, and that sense of flow and proportionality permeates the rhythms of the editing and the shift toward a more visual approach to storytelling.
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Production companies: A Columbia Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation in association with LStar Capital of a Brian Grazer production
Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Cesare Cremonini
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: David Koepp, based on the novel by Dan Brown
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Executive producers: David Householter, Dan Brown, William M. Connor, Anna Culp, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Salvatore Totino
Production designer: Peter Wenham
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editors: Dan Hanley, Tom Elkins
Music: Hans Zimmer
Casting: Nina Gold
Rated PG-13, 121 minutes